As a country deprived of energy, Pakistan has had to make some tough decisions. The energy demand is growing and energy shortage is one of the largest concerns that the present government aims to resolve in its tenure. It seemed like a daunting task some years ago, but now with huge investments in the energy sector under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), the country may resolve its energy crisis in the next few years. However, this comes with high environmental costs since the leading energy projects taken up by CPEC are coal-based power plants.
Currently, the share of coal in Pakistan’s energy mix is negligible (0.04%) compared to neighbouring India, but this is about to change with the setting up of coal power plants. The Sahiwal power plant is based on supercritical technology (subbituminous coal) generating 1320MW electricity. Around 4.48 million tonnes of coal is required by the plant per annum, which is imported from Indonesia. Pakistan has little choice other than taking up higher import costs for coal plants in order to incur less environmental costs. The cheapest option for Pakistan would have been to use local coal, which is in abundance in Pakistan. But now that coal is being imported, the economic justification to produce cheap electricity for a country with growing energy needs is no longer viable. Environmental degradation, albeit lessened through the new technology, would still remain.
With the world rapidly switching towards renewable energy in order to lower the carbon footprint, there is a huge chance that coal plants would have to be retired early. This would only add to the costs as the plants would not be utilised to their full capacity. This does not take into account the environmental costs which are often downplayed by players in the coal industry.
This coal power plant is based on clean coal technology which aims at reducing CO2 emissions through carbon capture. But carbon capture and storage is a very expensive process since it requires setting up of pipelines and compressors on a massive scale. This is not viable for a country like Pakistan. Besides, clean coal can only slow down the emissions, but is not a solution to global warming. Pakistan is already dealing with large number of harmful pollutants, and is one of the countries most vulnerable to climate change, largely in part due to emissions generated by large industrialised countries. Scientists have already warned that implications for the planet would be disastrous if the temperature exceeds by more than two degrees Celsius.
According to some experts, in order to not exceed the temperature, the same amount of emissions need to be captured underground as the amount of oil extracted from underground which doesn’t seem possible in the current scenario, considering the massive costs included.
Pakistan has been on the right track by using very little coal in its energy mix and incentivising the renewables sector through net-metering and alternative energy mapping. It has set up an alternative energy development board which has also laid out the framework for power and cogeneration through Bagasse (biomass) which has a huge potential in Pakistan. Sugar mills can set up high-pressure boilers which can supply excess power to the national grid and can be an alternative answer to the country’s looming energy crisis. Meanwhile, more small business owners are opting for solar power to meet their energy needs as it is proving to be less costly for them. Now with coal power plants backed by Chinese investments, Pakistan is treading on dangerous waters.
Isn’t it better, if instead of incurring huge costs setting up coal power plants, Pakistan invests in the renewable sector? With the prices of renewables coming down worldwide, it is a good opportunity for Pakistan to tap into. If more incentives are provided to the sector, the prices of renewables would come down further and be market competitive. In this way, more consumers would opt for renewables, which have already helped many rural communities in Pakistan that previously did not have access to the national grid. This is the most effective way to bring down Pakistan’s emission levels as pledged in the Paris Climate Treaty.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 26th, 2017.